Fort Polk unit teaches building bridges for a better Afghanistan
August 19, 2014
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Aug. 19, 2014) -- Approximately 15 Afghan National Army Soldiers with National Engineering Brigade and Afghan civilian engineers came to Kandahar Airfield, Aug. 9-13, to gain a better understanding of the bridge technologies coalition forces have brought to their country.
As International Security Assistance Forces prepare for the end of Operation Enduring Freedom later this year, Afghans are taking on more of the responsibility of ensuring logistics and communication routes, including ensuring bridges repaired or built by ISAF are kept in repair.
Staff Sgt. Ronnie Wilhelm, of Sunrise, Florida, section leader with the 814th Multi-Role Bridge Company, out of Fort Polk, Louisiana, and one of the primary trainers for the Afghans, explained that they were training them on steel truss bridges used by coalition forces, namely the Mabey-Johnson and the Acrow. Wilhelm said both are so similar in design that the training is compatible, even though they have different parts.
"The important thing we're learning here is how to use steel structures. Because of the training, we know how to assemble them. It's a new technology for Afghanistan because we've been constructing concrete bridges. The steel bridges will be good for our students to learn," said an Afghan engineering professor who asked that his name be withheld.
The training the 814th provided will allow Afghans to support their own infrastructure and be less reliant on coalition assets.
"When they leave this training they will be able to inspect and maintain the bridges here in theater," said Wilhelm. "It seems like every time we deploy as engineers we build three or four bridges, and it adds up over time. There are definitely hundreds theater wide, and we're the last U.S. bridge engineers here in theater. With this training they'll be able to maintain the bridges themselves."
Staff Sgt. Mathew Schnell, from Louisville, Kentucky, a member of the 814th who helped train the Afghans, explained that it was important for both the Afghan National Army and Afghan civilians to be a part of the training.
"The public might have to help with these bridges. Most of these bridges are main line bridges used by civilians as well as the Army," he said.
Schnell explained that these bridges give the people of Afghanistan freedom of mobility, especially during the flood season. They allow Afghan soldiers to get where they need to be to protect their people, and they allow commerce to flow year round.
The 814th taught fewer than 20 Afghans, but the impact of the training will be felt all over Afghanistan.
"This training will be good for us as well as our university," said the Afghan engineering professor. "We will take these materials and teach our students. So instead of teaching one person or two people, we'll have the materials to teach 500 students a year."
The Soldiers of the 814th said they were surprised at how much the Afghans already knew. Once they overcame language barriers, the training went so fast that more advanced training was a possibility.
"We had to tailor it (the training) to be a little more advanced because they were already used to the things that we were teaching them," said Wilhelm. "So we stepped up the training and taught them some things we weren't planning on teaching them, more about the design of bridges and more advanced repairs."
"The Afghan soldiers have been very receptive to the advanced training. They're very eager to learn about all the components they didn't know about," said Schnell. "They gave me the impression they're here to learn. They're showing me that they've retained everything we're teaching them. I fully trust that they are able to continue with the bridge repairs and the missions that lay ahead."
Though these bridges are located thought the country, an Afghan engineer with the Ministry of Public Works, who wished to remain anonymous, said this was the first time he had been trained on these bridges.
"The U.S. military trained us and we learned very useful things. I know I can build this bridge myself. I know all the parts, and if something is missing I can get the right part."
Schnell explained that the hardest part of the training was the language barrier. He said at first it was difficult to get an interpreter who could explain the technical parts. Even when they did find one, there were some parts that didn't have a Dari or Pashtu word. They taught the English name for the pieces and then the Afghans developed their own words for the parts.
"They're great," said the Afghan professor, about his American instructors. "When you know the language there is no problem. When you don't there is sometimes problems translating."
With training moving faster than expected there was an opportunity for Soldiers from both nations to come together and learn from each other.
"The best part is just being able to talk with them," Willhelm said.
"Just the interaction alone has been really good because we're all engineers. The best part isn't even the training itself as much as being able to talk with some Afghan soldiers and civilian engineers, hear some of their experiences and hear some of the questions they've had."
Wilhelm also said that it was good for the younger U.S. Soldiers to interact with the Afghan soldiers.
The Afghan professor added that with increased security, it will be possible to bring more experts to teach here in Afghanistan, not just for building bridges but all kinds of civil engineering projects.